It is a simple and inarguable premise: State lawmakers should be subject to the same disclosure laws as city councilors, county commissioners, and mayors.
That is the thinking behind a lawsuit filed this week by several news organizations across Washington, led by The Associated Press. The suit claims that legislators should not be allowed to hide behind a specious law they claim protects them from disclosing items such as emails and daily schedules.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, lawmakers should embrace the belief that open government best serves the public. That is a public that pays their salaries and pays the taxes that were divvied up in a $43.7 billion biennial budget. It should be unquestioned that taxpayers have a right to peek behind the curtain for a glimpse of the thinking that goes into formation of that budget.
But when media outlets sought emails and schedules from all 147 legislators during this year’s session, most lawmakers hid behind the cloak of a 1995 law that runs counter to the spirit of Washington’s Public Records Act. The act was passed with 72 percent approval in a statewide vote in 1972 and has served as the foundation for what is generally regarded as strong protections for open government. Two decades later, however, legislators changed the law to largely exclude themselves.
As Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition of Open Government, said: “How can we as citizens know that our elected officials are making good decisions if we don’t have access to the same information they are using to make those decisions?”
How, indeed? The importance of the question could be seen during tense and lengthy negotiations over the operating budget passed this year. In attempting to address the state’s public-education funding crisis, lawmakers passed a plan that marked a 12 percent increase in spending over the previous biennium and included a major change to the state’s tax system.
Who did lawmakers meet with in creating their plan? What did they contact by email about the budget? They say the public has no right to that information; we disagree, believing that obfuscation creates mistrust among the public and belies the idea that elected officials are public servants. Look at it this way: If you are an employer, should you have a right to know who employees are meeting with and sharing emails worth during work hours? Of course you should. State lawmakers must remember that they are the employees and they work for the public.
In recent years, several local lawmakers have defended their culture of secrecy when questioned by The Columbian’s Editorial Board. In one example, they have said that if they meet with a constituent who is a victim of domestic violence, that meeting would be a matter of public record by virtue of appearing on the calendar.
That, indeed, is a tricky situation, but the assertion does not stand up to scrutiny. If state lawmakers are afforded that protection, then why does it not apply to city councilors or county officials? Instead, legislators are stretching the facts to reinforce a desire for secrecy that belies the notion of representative government.
It is unfortunate that state government’s defense of an indefensible double standard has reached the point of a lawsuit. Lawmakers should address the situation themselves and remove the exceptions that have them acting against the principals of good governance. The public deserves transparency.